3 Lessons in Leadership During COVID-19 From Ralph Lauren's CEO

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Looking for lessons in leadership style during the pandemic? Look no further than Ralph Lauren's Patrice Louvet.

There has never been a year quite like 2020, especially for those of us in the retail industry. One of the great reminders is that none of us have ever navigated a pandemic before this year.

Yes, that’s an obvious sentiment, to be certain, but an important perspective. Retailers all over the world are stress-testing their leadership principles and capacities. Some are seeing less-than-desirable results (read: Neiman Marcus) while others like Patrice Louvet, CEO of Ralph Lauren, evoke inspiration by his example of true leadership.

Effective leadership skills and leading by example are important for any size business right now...

The pandemic will change retail forever

While Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the retail industry earlier this year, Louvet guided his company and customers to some of Ralph Lauren’s core values: timeliness, togetherness, and optimism during an interview in May.

He set the bar pretty high for how Ralph Lauren expected to operate during the shutdown. Admittedly, Ralph Lauren recently announced an approximately 15% global reduction of their workforce. However, in light of several household brands closing shop forever, the results could have been much worse.

The key difference? Louvet’s leadership acumen, an often overlooked trait by even the largest retailers. Anyone who has followed Louvet from his time at Procter & Gamble sees a strong track record of excellence.

For many retailers though, coronavirus retail plans are hard to make. And the dealings of a global retail titan such as Ralph Lauren may seem difficult to translate to everyday America, from mid-size chains to mom-and-pop stores that bring great pride to serving local communities.

And while most of us know Ralph Lauren for fabric and color ...


There are three key lessons I believe any retailer can take away from Patrice Louvet’s example during this crisis.

3 Leadership Lessons for any Retailer during Covid-19

Lesson 1: Take care of your team first.

In a recent interview with WWD, Louvet shared a brilliant perspective, "Command and control leadership is over. The world is too complex and moving too fast for that type of decision-making. It's now about trust and empowerment of teams."

What does that mean?

People matter.

People have always mattered, whether they mattered to you as much as they should isn’t the point -- the intrinsic value of your team members and customers cannot be missed.

Great communication skills leaders know that we cannot take anything for granted, especially in 2020. And that includes each retail employee.

One of the greatest points of emphasis I keep hearing about Millennials and Gen Z is they are really focused on, "What are you doing for your employees? How are you taking care of your people? What are you doing to live a corporate vision that I can support with my dollars?"

Ralph Lauren is doing a great job of it. They're introducing and championing a variety of digital initiatives, meaningful change and experiences that highlight what truly matters.

For your store, for your employees, it all comes down to care.

How does your staff know that you care? How does your sales manager or shift managers, backroom staff, after-hours, early-hours, holiday and seasonal team members, first-time or long-time customers -- how do all of them recognize that you care?

Take a page out of Ralph Lauren’s playbook here: emphasize quality, timeliness, and innovation.

Timeliness and innovation is what many brands missed while pivoting during COVID-19. Panic and fear, two understandable drivers and reactions, caused many brands to downsize their brand at all costs to protect and preserve their revenue.

I get it -- when the reality hit us in the first few months of the pandemic it was mind bending. Heck, we all remember that fateful day we learned up to two million might die from the coronavirus, they were shuttering the borders and Tom Hanks announced he and his wife had it. It was a scary time.

And maybe you made the same mistake of downsizing at all costs, but it doesn’t have to be a fatal mistake.

Aim for right-sizing your brand, not just downsizing.

Are we on the forefront of a second wave? A third? Who really knows. What I do know is that downsizing at all costs will end up costing you sales, turnover, and competitive advantage in the marketplace. You'll be stepping over dollars to pick up pennies as my dad would say for if you don't do more for your customers right now, they'll give even less of their money to you.

You may need to tighten up your store or even furlough some employees in the coming weeks as your area, like Ireland, is locked down just prior to the all important holiday season. It’s not the end of the world if that means being wise with the long-term play.

What it could mean though is leaning into this opportunity to show your team members and your customers that they matter more than just the next sale. That's because people who feel they matter buy more and work harder for you.

Lesson 2: Build your brand on quality that will last.

Who buys a sweater while on vacation in Hawai’i? I did. I know, it sounds ridiculous because a tropical setting is probably one of the last places you may think of needing a sweater.

And yet, there I was on vacation in Honolulu at the Ala Moana Center walking by the Ralph Lauren shop when this purple sweater caught my eye.

Immediately, I thought, “Purple is not my color,” but that’s when the young sales clerk introduced herself and encouraged me to try on the sweater. “Just try it on. It’s so soft!”

It’s a wool sweater -- no, thanks, I’ll skip on that scratchy feeling. “But, it’s lamb’s wool,” and she then proceeded to tell me all about the sweater, ending with the phrase, "You'll have this for a long time."

Bob Phibbs Ralph Lauren sweaterTwenty-five years later, and I still have this sweater and remember that conversation every time I wear it. The sweater is still soft, the only wool sweater I even own.

It was made by a brand that built their reputation on timelessness and quality.

Customers don’t walk into your store wishing for something that will last only months.

We crave quality and sustainability in what we purchase with our hard-earned money.

You want to see how well your merchandise is holding up over time? Check out the resale sites like Poshmark and see how well your products hold their value.

That should be a clue as to how well people think of your brand, but also, understand your customer service ties into the big picture as well. 

Another sentiment I keep hearing is about the holidays. This year shoppers are going to have to be still standing out on sidewalks due to social distancing measures implemented in a lot of stores.

Ask yourself and your C-level execs, "Would you stand out on a sidewalk to experience your store?" If not, that's where I would spend my time improving that experience.

Curbside is not a long-term solution for retailers to embrace -- it’s a marriage of convenience for everyone right now as we try to figure out this season of life.

If you don't have a compelling reason for people to shop with you, you're going to have a tough go of it in 2021.

Your brand’s quality is reflected in your customer experience, product or merchandise craftsmanship, and your willingness to adapt for what your shoppers truly need from you.

Lesson 3: This is a “We” moment, not an “I” moment, and your team needs you to lead by example through core values.

Ralph Lauren, the actual founder of Ralph Lauren, is forgoing his own salary for 2021 and Louvet already agreed to a 50% pay cut for 2021 as well. This is leadership by example.

While Lauren and Louvet likely have other significant income sources, namely stock options, I’m confident this gesture speaks volumes to their team members around the world. It says, “We’re going to get through this together, but only if we all share the burden. I’m doing my part to help make your part easier on you and your family.”

Optics matter, even more so during a crisis of this magnitude.

The old way that people used to manage retail operations was, "Employees are all disposable. It's just a numbers game. Just get them in and get them out. I'm the boss, so do this."

That didn’t really work 20 years ago and it's not going to work in 2020, certainly with a pandemic raging, and not in 2021. Mr. Louvet has been able to show us a true leader at the helm saying, "Follow me as I try my best to do what’s best for all of us together."

Team members and customers are already judging brands by their response during this COVID-19 crisis.

Like it or not, there is a dividing line where people are asking if you did the best you could during this time.

Did you take care of your brand? Were you more interested in protecting shareholders’ interests or your team members and customers’ interests? What did you value? What did you neglect?

I was talking to a colleague of mine a few days ago when they mentioned the location of a well-known department store. It’s supposed to operate with 46 team members, but it's now operating with only 16. Sixteen spread across three floors, receiving and administrative. Geez.

I can’t imagine the customer experience improving with such a reduction in staff, and what are the values driving those 16 team members?

See also, 7 Leadership Training Skills To Make Your Store More Successful

In Sum

CEOs and C-level executives lead by focusing on core values and sharing the pain. While we’re all still figuring out what the new normal is during a pandemic, we cannot lose sight of why we do what we do as retailers. Focus on the three lessons...

People still matter.

Quality will outlast quantity with enough time.

We are all better when we look out for each other.

Those are the lessons I encourage you to take with you into this holiday season.

Are you going to say, "We're going to cut entry-level sales associates because they don't matter."

Or, are you going to say, "We're going to find a way to give the best experience by having people who are trainable and actually like working for us."

If you’re looking to create a remarkable experience with amazing retail leadership, you need the best retail sales training. I spent the past 25 years working with some of the top retailers in the world. Visit SalesRX.com to learn more.

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